That’s like asking how long it takes to fall in love. It can happen in a heartbeat. Or an entire lifetime.
Sometimes great works spring forth fully formed from the mind of a solo virtuoso; others squeak out over years – or decades – thanks only to the tireless tinkering of many.
Collectively, they show us that when it comes to creativity, time can be fluid, even irrelevant.
Here are eight masterpieces, contemporary and classic, and the time it took for the creative process to run its course – or so the legends say…
“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac
Time: Three weeks
While Jack Kerouac famously told talk show host Steve Allen that it took him just three weeks to write “On the Road,” the story behind the story has a much longer timeline. Between the solitary 1947 road trip that inspired the novel and the book’s publication 10 years later, it existed in different versions: in Kerouac’s head, in diary entries and on his typewriter. In April 1951, Kerouac typed an entire draft on a 120-foot-long taped-together scroll of tracing paper so he wouldn’t have to interrupt his three-week creative marathon. After several reworks to convince publishers to take the book, it was finally published in 1957.
“A Song Flung Up to Heaven” by Maya Angelou
Time: 15 years
The final volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” spans four years, from the time she returned to the U.S. from Ghana in 1964 through the moment she began to write “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1968. Though it covers a short piece of history, the work took Angelou 15 years to write. Why? “I didn’t know how to write it,” she has said. Angelou also noted it was difficult – nearly impossible – to address the pain through which she and the African-American community suffered during that time.
“Diamonds” by Rihanna
Time: Under 14 minutes
Before Sia Furler (known professionally as “Sia”) added words to the track that ultimately became the pop hit “Diamonds,” music producer Benny Blanco and his team didn’t even think the beats had pop song potential. “We were more thinking of making a record that sounds like Kanye,” he said. But then Sia heard the track. And, in just 14 minutes, she added a few verses and the famous chorus. Rihanna liked it so much that, in the final release, she didn’t make any changes to the way Sia sang the tune.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
Time: At least five years
It’s said that when Bob Dylan asked Leonard Cohen how long it had taken him to write “Hallelujah,” an abashed Cohen replied, “two years.” In truth, it took more like five years. He reportedly spent a half-decade drafting and discarding up to 80 verses, admitting that many writing sessions involved banging his head on hotel room floors in fits of frustration. All that headache and handwringing didn’t lead to much – at first. But more than three decades after the song’s sleepy release in 1984, “Hallelujah” has become one of the most iconic songs of all time, covered by more than 300 artists and featured in countless mainstream moments.
Time: One night
Vodka and ginger beer may give the Moscow Mule its spicy kick, but the cocktail couldn’t exist without its essential third ingredient: the copper mug. While several origin stories circulate, one traces the drink back to a trio of persistent purveyors unable to push their products fast enough. In 1941, Sophie Berezinski, a Russian immigrant and daughter of a copper mug manufacturer, walked into the Cock ’n’ Bull Pub on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. There, she met pub owner Jack Morgan and his friend John Martin. Bemoaning their shared marketing pitfalls, they spent the evening concocting combinations of Morgan’s ginger beer and Martin’s then less popular Smirnoff Vodka until they arrived at what is known today as the Moscow Mule.
Momofuku Milk Bar’s Famous Birthday Cake
Time: Two years
Downing a piece of Momofuku Milk Bar’s delectable birthday cake may not even take two minutes. But the next time you scoop up that last sprinkle, consider that the cake’s now-famous recipe spent two years in the test kitchen before making its debut. The cake’s inventor, Christina Tosi, is also the genius behind Momofuku’s crack pie and compost cookies. She introduced the layered and unfrosted vanilla-rainbow “birthday cake” the same year she cut the ribbon on the iconic bakery’s first location in New York City.
St. John the Divine
Time: 127 years and counting
One of the largest churches in the world, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits unfinished in Manhattan’s Morningside Park with no plans for immediate completion. In 1892, the architects responsible for New York’s subway system broke ground after the laying of the cornerstone by Bishop Henry Potter, but economic hardships – including a 32-year hiatus after World War II – have continually stalled the cathedral’s construction. In 1921, a guide to the cathedral posited that it might take 700 years to build, since its erection employed true Gothic building methods. Today, New York City commissioners are looking at a timeline closer to 300 years.
Ise Grand Shrine
Time: 2,000 years… or 20 years
The Shinto belief of the impermanence of the natural world is most obviously exhibited in the perpetual reconstruction of the Ise Grand Shrine, originally built in 4 BCE in honor of the Shinto goddess Amaterasu. The shrine is a group of 125 buildings, two of which have been destroyed and rebuilt as exact replicas in adjacent locations every 20 years since the seventh century. One of Japan’s most sacred and expensive sites, the Ise Grand Shrine costs $500 million to construct each time, and will be rebuilt again in 2033, following the exact blueprints and building techniques established 2,000 years ago.